Archive for the ‘Craig Stammen’ Category

Duck Duck Goose

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

I thought it only appropriate that “the loyal opposition” should return at precisely the moment that my first date in Washington (here she is, and take a good look) arrived for our lovely evening. And if by “lovely evening” you mean watching the Washington Nationals and turning their victory into fake reporting then you’re right: but I have no choice but to do this in my current state. This CFG thing, this new-wave-inter-net “we’re down with the twitter blog,” is struggling, really struggling, so I just know that most of this blog’s readership revolves around my pen. And for the benefit of you all, here finally is a picture of me . . .

Tonight Roy Oswalt was out for a stroll with his new team –11 million dollars in tow — when, out of the blue: it’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . no, no, no — it’s the most interesting man in the world. Nyjer Morgan!  Nyjer who? In his first at bat, Morgan hit the ball 400 feet into the center-right gap, flipped off his helmet as he sped around second base, and went totally horizontal, belly first, into third. Nyjer Morgan? It was like watching lightning strike on a clear day. Former Astro Oswalt was so confused by the entire thing he had to pay someone to tell him who it was that just did that to him. “What the hell is going on! Who is that guy on third?” It’s Nyjer Morgan, channeling Ricky Henderson. “Naw, can’t be.”

Morgan wasn’t the only Nats superhero “lifting tall buildings” on Friday night. Adam Kennedy arrived in the clubhouse before the Phillies game to find Cristian Guzman’s assistant sitting (morose and weeping) in the Nationals’ locker room. Kennedy got the message — in the first inning (and with “Rickey” Morgan on third) he hit the ball hard enough to the right side (just as he was instructed) to allow Morgan to lope across the plate: Nats 1, Phillies 0. Oswalt was even more confused — “what the  . . .” But “The Miracle on Half Street” continued. Roger Bernadina began his night by gunning out a sprinting Oswalt at first. Oh, and Craig Stammen was lights out: hitting spots, keeping his pitch count low and quietly sauntering from the mound, as if he was Greg Maddux. Oswalt wasn’t the only one surprised. As I sat watching this team’s Friday night tidal wave I could only repeat Oswalt’s words — “Who the hell are these guys . . .”

Don’t misunderstand: I’ve been watching this team with vigor, knowing that on a good day they’re only mediocre. It’s a self-inflicted baseball passion. They lallygag, throw the ball over the dugout, crash into each other, slam into outfield walls, miss the cutoff man — and their “phenom” pitcher can’t go past the All Star break. It’s fantastic fun. I expected the same on Friday against the Citizens Bank Bullies. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Nats showed up to play and made glue of the Ponies, embarrassing Oswalt and frustrating Rollins and Howard and the rest of them. So . . .  what happened? The answer is obvious: Mike Rizzo is a psycho. The proof is this photo of Rizzo sitting in Jim Riggleman’s office as players arrived for Friday’s game.

More specifically, on Friday afternoon (just hours before Miss Iowa and the Phillies showed up in Washington), Mike Rizzo decided he’d had enough of his team’s mediocre performance, and that it was time to play “duck, duck, goose.” In “Rizzo Land” the game is not as simple as it was when I was a kid, but it’s the same concept: you line up the players (in any old order) and you raise your right hand and go down the line — “in, in, traded . . . in, in, traded . . .” You only change your tune when you get to Morgan: “in, in . . . and if you don’t hit a triple Morgan, I swear to God you’ll be spending August in Oakland.” Message received. The only player not really frightened by this show of Rizzo passion was Ryan Zimmerman . . . and “the kid.” Even Adam Dunn was included. As for the rest of them. Well, we might have seen the fear in Morgan’s eyes: Rizzo’s antics was placing his bobblehead night in jeopardy. Rizzo didn’t care: “do something Nyjer, or I swear we’ll woodchip those things.”

The Mike “Corleone” Rizzo, “Duck, Duck, Goose” is more than just a cute kids’ game — it’s like rendering someone to Burma for “questioning.” It’s more like playing in the Olympics for Iraq. Okay, I admit. It could be that the appearance of Katie Conners helped to spark Friday night’s outbreak of unusual excellence, but I really doubt it. For as this mammoth publication goes to press, the Nationals are fast becoming a new team. And it’s because of their general manager. They’re getting better, a lot better, and they’re doing it quickly.

The word in baseball is that you can always get a closer and Rizzo showed that this week as he dealt Matt Capps to Minnesota. And you can always deal, at the very last minute, a slap-hitting veteran infielder for a handful of prospects, especially if the other team’s All Star second sacker ends up on the DL. As Cristian Guzman learned. Adam Dunn may be next: or maybe not. But the truth it, it doesn’t really matter. Mike Rizzo — the Washington Nationals’ true fearless leader — is playing “duck, duck, goose” in the clubhouse. And he’s made it clear to those who are staying with the team: “play hard and play hard now  – – – or you’ll be shaking your head somewhere else a year from now and wondering where it all went wrong.

Nats Fall To Seligs

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Nats bench bat and right fielder Michael Morse slammed two home runs and drove in four, but the Washington Nationals fell to the Milwaukee Brewers 7-5 on Friday night. The game might well have come down to one play: with two outs in the fifth inning (and with Craig Stammen providing a solid outing), shortstop Ian Desmond failed to throw out a sprinting Alcides Escobar at first. Escobar then took second and scored on an up-the-middle single from pitcher Chris Narveson. The Escobar single shifted the game’s momentum, with Narveson eventually scoring on a Jim Edmonds’ single. The Desmond play, had it been made, would have ended the fifth with a Nats’s lead of 5-1 and left Stammen cruising into the sixth. “I think Desmond made a great play to get to the ball,” Jim Riggleman later said. “Escobar hit it sharp. Desmond may have had a little more time. Escobar runs well. That’s baseball. It’s still two outs, man on first and the pitcher is hitting. We have to put that inning away.”

But the Nats didn’t put the inning away — and the Brewers rallied for two runs against Tyler Clippard in the sixth before Edmonds lofted a home run against Sean Burnett in the seventh. The bullpen collapse is particularly worrisome, as it repeats a pattern that has seen Tyler Clippard struggling to find the form that made him one of the best middle relievers in the season’s first three months. “It’s about the third time we have gone through that with Clippard,” Riggleman said after the loss. “We give him a couple of games and boy, here he goes again. He is looking good. Today, he had great momentum striking out Fielder. I felt, ‘OK , that’s huge,’ but [then] he walked Casey McGehee. Again, that gives them the opportunity to think, ‘Hey, we are one swing away.'” Clippard’s ERA continues to slip: he is now at 3.45 for the season. At the end of June, Clippard’s ERA stood at 2.20.

The Team That Bud Built: While MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is a much derided figure among large numbers of baseball fans, it’s hard to find anyone in Milwaukee who openly criticizes him. For good reason: there wouldn’t be baseball in Milwaukee if it weren’t for Selig, whose loyalty to the city assured that it would retain its big league tradition. Selig was a minority owner in the Milwaukee Braves and fought a lonely, but losing battle to keep them from moving to Atlanta, then virtually blackmailed baseball to keep a team in the city by inducing the Chicago White Sox to play twenty games in the abandoned Milwaukee County Stadium in 1968 and 1969. The threat was clear: if the White Sox didn’t start drawing on the south side, Selig would buy them and move them north. But Selig’s bid to buy the Pale Hose in 1969 was blocked by the American League, which was committed to keeping two teams in Chicago. Selig got the booby prize when the league allowed him to purchase the no-account (and bankrupt) Seattle Pilots for $10.8 million and move them east.

Selig’s conviction that baseball could thrive in Milwaukee was much like a second marriage: it was a triumph of hope over experience. The Braves never drew well after their late 1950s success and the city seemed only marginally interested in supporting a major league team in the 1970s. Milwaukee was hit hard by the successive rust belt recessions that stripped jobs from the city’s machine tool and heavy engine manufacturing industries. Thousands of jobs were lost at Milwaukee’s largest plants — Allis-Chalmers, Evinrude, Briggs and Stratton, and Harley-Davidson. The city’s breweries started disappearing in the late 1960s and into the 1970s as Schlitz (“the beer that made Milwaukee famous”), Blatz (“it’s draft brewed Blatz beer, wherever you go”) and Pabst (“it won the blue ribbon”) closed or merged with larger brewers. While Milwaukee’s beer brands have been revived, the old scions of the industry (named for Milwaukee’s most famous German-American families) are gone, gone, gone. By the late 1970s, the miles upon miles of Polish, German and African-American working class neighborhoods were either disappearing or being gentrified.

Selig ignored the evidence, gambling that the city would survive and support a team. It was a lousy gamble, but it has paid off. While the team limped along in the 1970s, Selig (the inheritor of his father’s successful car leasing business), not only inaugurated a marketing program that brought fans into the city from northern Wisconsin, he built a scouting and development team that identified young talent (Robin Yount and Paul Molitor) — mixing them with Milwaukee legends (the Brewers brought Hank Aaron back to Milwaukee for the 1975 and 1976 seasons), that boosted attendance and solidified the Brewers’ identity in the city. While the Brewers were busy winning MLB Organization of the Year awards (seven in all), Selig was becoming an increasingly important figure in the game itself — leading an owners’ revolt against baseball commissioner Fay Vincent and heading up the powerful MLB Executive Council. When Selig replaced Vincent he ceded ownership of the Brewers to his daughter Wendy and in 1994 the team was sold to Mark Attanasio, an out-of-state investment management mogul, for a measly $224 million.

You have to be impressed with “The Team That Bud Built.” While the franchise has never won a World Series, it has consistently outperformed baseball’s expectations, fielding small market boppers like Prince Fielder and filling the seats by building a team that focuses on a mix of Milwaukee’s working class history and Old Europe traditions — from the Archie Bunker-like downscale “wallbangers” to the puzzlingly popular sausage races. It has helped that the Brewers were able to plan and build Miller Park, with a fan shaped convertible roof. Not surprisingly, the Miller Park brand (which runs to 2020 and costs the brewing company $40 million) comes from one of the remaining great (and financially successful) brewing companies of Milwaukee, founded by German immigrant Frank Miller in 1855 and sold by his granddaughter (a temperance advocate) in 1966 — to an international conglomerate. The opening of Miller Park was the last piece of the puzzle for Selig’s plan to make baseball a permanent Milwaukee tradition: the Brewers brought over 3 million fans into the park in 2009 in an urban area that is half the size of Washington.

Miami Vice: Nats Can’t Score

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

The Washington Nationals succumbed to their own lack of production, falling to the Florida Marlins 1-0 on Sunday in Miami. The loss squandered the team’s opportunity to back the stellar pitching of starter Craig Stammen, who held the Marlins to one run in six innings of work. The inconsistent Stammen, who seems to be on-again and off-again, put in one of his best pitching performances of the year, keeping the ball down in the zone against the befuddled Marlins’ hitters. Stammen threw 98 pitches, 62 of them for strikes. His only trouble came in the 5th, when he gave up successive doubles. Joel Peralta finished out the game, providing his by-now usual in-the-strike-zone relief effort. But as was the case on Saturday, Nationals’ hitters could not seem to solve Florida’s pitching: Washington rapped out eight hits, but their celebrated middle of the line-up heavyweights were a combined 2-9, stranding an embarrassing 11 runners. The Nats now head to Cincinnati to face the surging Reds. Duck.

Those Are The Headlines, Now For The Details: MASN play-by-play man, Bob Carpenter, informed his viewing audience on Sunday that he’d been told by Marlins’ beat reporters that ex-Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez was “absolutely not” fired because of his troubles with Hanley Ramirez. According to Carpenter’s discussions, Gonzalez was fired because Marlins’ owner Jeff Loria knew that Fredi was headed to Atlanta to take over for the dearly departing Bobby Cox at the end of the season. So (we are led to believe) Loria thought for a minute and decided ‘why not make a change now?’ Moreover, Carpenter added, the reason that Bobby Valentine (lined up to be the new Marlins’ manager), wasn’t hired is because he insisted in bringing his own set of coaches to Miami — while Loria wanted him to retain the Gonzalez crew. The deal fell through.

I don’t doubt that Carpenter was told by the Miami press that Fredi Gonzalez was not (“absolutely not,” as Carpenter emphasized) fired for benching Hanley Ramirez (as we speculated, here), and I don’t doubt for a minute that Marlins beat reporters actually believe that. And, in fact, it may well be that Gonzalez wasn’t fired over the Ramirez incident. That’s quite possible. But we (we here at CFG) will insist on this: anyone who believes that Gonzalez was fired (suddenly, surprisingly, and summarily) because he planned to go to Atlanta (news to me) during the off season is simply buying Jeff Loria’s line. Or defending Hanley Ramirez. Or something. That said, the other part of the story (that Valentine wasn’t hired because he wouldn’t retain the Marlins coaching staff), makes sense. But it’s the only part of the story that does . . .

We’ve had a bit of this lately. When Omar Infante was named to the All Star team, fans were a more than a little puzzled. But not the “MLB Network” cheering section, or the guys at “Baseball Tonight,” who spent their time telling us what a great player Omar is — despite not having the requisite number of at-bats to be taken seriously. Infante shoved aside Joey Votto, Ryan Zimmerman, Dan Uggla, Rickie Weeks and Adam Dunn (whose home run totals led the NL), who actually play every game. Infante doesn’t. He’s a utility man, pinch hitter and filler. When he got the call from Atlanta GM Frank Wren that he’d made the team, he expected the worst: that he’d been tradedto Toronto. Never mind: the guys at BT and MLB Network were in the bag for Infante, telling all of us morons what a terrific ballplayer he is. Listen, Tim Kurkjian is right, no one should blame Infante for getting picked, but please, please, don’t try to sell us the line that Omar Infante (good family man, nice guy and all that) is a really good player who deserved it. If that was really true (if Infante deserved to be on that field instead of — say –  Adam Dunn), there wouldn’t have been any controversy . . .

Nats Staff Still Unsettled

Monday, July 5th, 2010

The New York Mets provided the fireworks on July 4taking an 8-0 lead against the Washington Nationals and going on to register a “no contest” 9-5 victory at Nationals Park. The heat wasn’t the only thing that was unbearable at the stadium: up-and-down sometime starter Craig Stammen inaugurated the contest by serving up batting practice middle-of-the-plate pitches, which were duly deposited by Mets batters to all parts of the field. “I wasn’t very good. That’s the reason we lost. We move on,” Stammen said after the game. “It’s not anything physical. It’s how I’m thinking out there, a little bit, and sticking to the game plan little more — having conviction with my pitches.” Stammen’s outing, after a superior appearance last week versus the Bravos, was evidence enough that the Nats pitching staff still needs some kind of help.

The team’s pitching stats tell only a part of the story: while the Nats are just below the middle-of-the-pack in ERA (17th of 30, at 4.14), every other NL East team leads them with, not surprisingly, Atlanta at the very front of the division. While Washington’s bragging rights bullpen has been stellar (it ranks 9th in major league baseball), the stats don’t tell the entire story: the numbers imply that the Nats are bullpen dependent, calling on their middle relievers and closers in 35 of the first 40 games — more than anyone else except for three other MLB teams: proof positive (it seems) that the Nats starting pitching (while better than last year) is still woeful. Pitching into the 7th is a huge problem for the Nats rotation. A part of the team’s starting pitching problem is injuries (the DL list is a pitching graveyard), but it’s also true that the Nats simply lack the horses at the front of the rotation to climb out of last place in the “NL Least” — and there’s no guarantee that the return of Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Olsen, Jason Marquis or Chien Ming-Wang will solve that problem.

The San Diego Padres roll into town today (with a game tomorrow night at Nats Park) with the best pitching staff around: a 3.07 ERA that is provided by a bevy of kids and veterans — Mat Latos has been the surprise, but he’s supplemented by a noted ground ball guru (Jon Garland) and a legendary closer. How did they get there? They followed the Rizzo Principles: they drafted and developed young pitchers (Latos was drafted in the 11th round in 2006, Wade LeBlanc was a second round pick in the same year) and then traded a veteran (Jake Peavy) for a passel of young prospects. If Mike Rizzo follows the same pattern he will wait on Zimmermann, Olsen, Marquis and Wang — and set aside the enormous temptation of trading Adam Dunn or Josh Willingham, whose middle-of-the-order bats are essential to transforming the young staff into winners. That’s probably a pretty good strategy for a team that’s still rebuilding, but it’s near-beer for Nats’ watchers. Which means? Which means that the Nats staff is not only unsettled, it’s likely to remain so.

Nats Drop 2 of 3; Stammen Demoted

Monday, June 7th, 2010

The Washington Nationals dropped an ten inning contest to the Cincinnati Reds 5-4 on Sunday, losing two of three to the surging Concepcions. The Nats have now lost ten of their last fourteen and have dropped to four games under .500. The Sunday loss was particularly painful, as usually reliable Nats reliever Matt Capps dropped a winnable save in the ninth, while Doug Slaten gave up two unnecessary singles in the tenth to provide an exclamation to the collapse. Nats starter Craig Stammen pitched well, hurling six-and-two-thirds innings, while allowing one run. But Stammen’s effort was not enough to save his job with the big club: after the game he was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse to make room for Stephen Strasburg, who will start on Tuesday against the Pirates.

Stammen was philosophical about his demotion. “The proof is in the pudding. I knew I was kind of one of the guys in line for [the demotion],” he said after hearing the news. “I haven’t been very consistent and it’s just the way it is. To pitch in the big leagues, you can’t really worry about if you are going to get sent down or staying or going or eating cheese for lunch. You have to be able to get guys out.” It has been known for some time that Strasburg’s arrival would mean the demotion of someone in the starting rotation — and the decision came down to one between Stammen, J.D. Martin or Luis Atilano. Outside of Stammen, the continuing big story of the Nats is the inability of Matt Capps to get out of the ninth with a win. Once again on Sunday, Capps found himself in a save situation that he couldn’t complete. Capps entered the contest with one out in the ninth, but gave up successive doubles to account for the blown save, his fourth of the year. “I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t very good,” Capps said following the contest.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Bill Ladson has the Nats “leaning” towards drafting big bat catcher/outfielder Bryce Harper with the first pick in today’s first year player draft. While Harper is only 17, his bat is so good that he’s become the prohibitive favorite — and has been called “the greatest amateur player of all time.” So, as most Nats blogs agree, Harper is the pick: Nationals Farm Authority (who are good at predicting these kinds of things) says that Harper is “a lead pipe cinch,” while detailing the top ten prospects in the lottery. Meanwhile, back on June 3, Nationals Enquirer published a video of Harper’s ejection from a recent junior college game. The rap on Harper has been that he has a bad attitude, but the report seems more rumor than fact. Then too, if being ejected from a game were cause to question a person’s character, there wouldn’t be many draftees eligible. Even so, over at Capital Punishment they’re worried about the attitude question and meticulously rework worries about Harper’s swing. CP says that Harper is no “sure thing.” Too true.

Nats Skid Now At Four

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Ian Desmond went 4-4 and Drew Storen made a solid debut, but the Washington Nationals fell to the Cardinals 6-2 on Monday night in St. Louis. The Nats were victimized by a tough first inning from starter Craig Stammen, who surrendered four runs against a hitting heavy Cards line-up.  Stammen pitched well the rest of the way, but Washington’s suddenly quiet bats could not get to the Redbirds. “He got settled in and pitched really good,” Riggleman said of Stammen after the game. “He really made a lot of great pitches and gave us a chance. He kept us in there. Their guy did a good job, too. Lohse did a nice job. He kind of kept us off.” Drew Storen came on in the 7th inning with a man on and one out to face former Nats infielder Felipe Lopez (who fouled out), Redbirds outfielder Ryan Ludwick (who he hit) and big bopper Matt Holliday, whom he struck out. It was an impressive first outing for the 22-year-old reliever. “He closed the inning. He did good. He threw strikes,” Ivan Rodriguez said. “He threw the three pitches out of four that he has. He threw the sinker, the breaking ball and the slider, and he did great. He did a great job.” The Nats losing streak now stands at four — with a second game against the Cardinals in St. Louis tonight.

Those Are The Details And Now For The Headlines: It looks like one of those seasons for the Bosox, who are mired in fourth place in the AL East, a full 8.5 games behind the surging Tampa Bay Rays. The sound and fury from Boston is deafening, as fans of “the Nation” have begun to take themselves apart about the deplorable state of their lovable Yazstremskis. Over The Monster is particularly puzzled, pointing out the “surprising teams” that have better records than the heroes of Fenway: the Padres, Blue Jays, Reds, Nationals and Marlins. The head scratching in the Fens is interesting to watch, particularly for a franchise whose fans suffer from attention deficit disorder. If you had claimed back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that the Sox would one day be viewed as one of the game’s sure-to-win franchises, your claim would have been greeted with jaw-dropping disbelief.

While Sabermetric gurus are able to point to a welter of statistics reflecting the Red Sox woes, the simple truth is that the once proud pounders who thrilled the nation (and “The Nation”), with two world championships are an aging, punchless, poor-pitching and injured group of Back Bayers who play their worst against their deadliest foes. The Red Sox lost two of three in New York one week into the season, lost four in Tampa Bay a week later and two of three against the Yankees in New York in May. That doesn’t count losses to teams they should dominate. For instance, the over-confident Sox lost three to Baltimore’s wadda-we-gonna-do Triple-A Orioles . . .  for God’s Sake . (Spontaneous demonstrations broke out on Eutaw Street and Dave Trembley was given the keys to the city.)

The problem is pitching (ain’t it always). The Red Sox rank 27th in runs allowed and 27th in team ERA. While the Red Sox can put runs on the board (they’re near the top in runs scored), they can’t keep others from scoring even more: Clay Buchholz (with four wins) is their steadiest starter, Josh Beckett is a mess and Daisuke Matsuzaka (just back from the DL) can’t get anyone out. Their roster is a doctor’s dream. Beckett has back spasms, J.D. Drew suffers from vertigo (and an inability to hit an inside slider), Mike Cameron has kidney stones (the poor sot), Jacoby Ellsbury has a chest contusion, Dice-K had a neck strain (and probably still has), Jed Lowrie has suffered from mono and (OLAS) Justin Pedroia continues to battle wrist issues. And now (following last night’s game against the hated Yankees) the entire team probably needs scream therapy.

For those who like tragedy (and walk offs), last night’s Red Sox tilt against the Yankees was fun to watch (you could switch over, just in time to see this disaster, following the Nats post game wrap-up). With a man on in the bottom of the ninth and the Sox ahead 9-7, super reliever Jonathan Papelbon collapsed. He gave up a game-tying homer to Alex Rodriguez (who hit it wicked faaaaah …), then plunked Francisco Cervelli with a fastball. With Cervelli on first, Papelbon missed his spot with Marcus Thames, who cranked Mr. P’s wheelhouse fastball into the lower left field seats. As Papelbon walked from the field, it was hard to shake the feeling that the Yankees have Boston’s number. So here’s the deal: after a season of success at Fenway the current standings in the AL East are, in fact, an accurate reflection of Red Sox reality. We can be surprised by the early season success of the Padres, Blue Jays, Reds, Nationals and Marlins. But no one should be surprised by the Red Sox. It’s not that they’re a bad team, because they’re not. For Red Sox fans, it’s  worse. They’re mediocre.

Marlins’ Pitching Spears Nats

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

The Nats were reportedly displeased with their play over their last two days in Miami (“We’re definitely upset,” Willie Harris admitted. “We’re not like in the past, where you might think it’s just another ballgame. It’s different), but the truth is that, while the Nats could have played much better, they lost to two tough pitchers and a team of suddenly surging long ball hitters. It’s sometimes just this simple: the other team plays better and the guys they put on the mound are in command of their stuff. So it was on Saturday, when Chris Volstad’s knuckle curve subdued the Nats order, stifling a confident team in a visitor’s park. Which is simply to say: the Nats ran into a team that boasts pitchers who know how to throw complete games. The Marlins are tied with the Phillies for most complete games — having turned in complete performances from Volstad (who held the Nats to just four hits) Ricky Nolasco (beaten by Scott Olsen on Friday) and Josh Johnson — who was in complete command on Sunday.

Which is not to say that the Nats played (or pitched) well — they didn’t. Craig Stammen remained inconsistent through four innings on Saturday, pulled early by Riggleman when it was clear that he simply didn’t have his stuff. After two good outings, Stammen seemed to slip back to his old ways: serving up batting practice fastballs to a group of hitters who knew exactly what to do with them. John Lannan endured the same kind of outing on Sunday, though this time the Nats looked a little less like the defensive bumblers of ’09. Pitching was still the problem — Lannan gave up nine hits through five shaky innings and the bullpen wasn’t much better, with Brian Bruney as ineffective behind Lannan as Tyler Walker had been behind Stammen. Bruney was puzzled by his continued struggles: “Really, honestly, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said following the Marlins Sunday win. “I think you can just jumble everything together and say it’s frustrating.”

Chris Volstad is an imposing presence on the mound (6-8, 225), with a pitcher-heavy fastball and a smooth delivery. But his best pitch is a “knuckle curve” — what some players call a “spike curve.” Oddly, it (and not the fastball) is Volstad’s out pitch (or at least it was on Saturday) and when he throws it well (as he did against the Nats), he’s damn near unhittable. The knuckle curve features a semi-curve ball grip with one or two fingers curled back. To be effective, the ball is launched or pushed towards the plate instead of thrown. The master of the knuckle curve was Burt Hooton, a Texas phenom who pitched fifteen years for the Cubs, Dodgers and Astros. Hooton was the “next big thing” when he arrived in Chicago in 1971 — one of the few MLB players to vault from college directly into a team’s starting line-up.

For a time in Chicago, Hooton looked like the real deal. He struck out 15 in one of his earliest appearances in 1971 and in his first outing in ’72 he threw a breathtaking no-hitter against the Phillies. But Hooton struggled with the Cubs the rest of the way and was dealt to L.A. in 1975. Hooton was 19-8 for the Trolleys in 1978, his best year. In 1981, Hooton was named the NLCS MVP for his stellar pitching performances against the Expos and went on to pitch well against the Yankees in the ’81 World Series. But while Hooton was the master of the knuckle curve, he was never the master of the strike zone — and never equaled in his later career the lights-out promise of his 1972 no-hitter. Hooton has served as a pitching coach in the Astro’s organization since his retirement and, in 2009, was inducted into the University of Texas Hall of Fame, along with Astro’s slugger Lance Berkman.

Nats Leave 15, Lose In 13

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

The Washington Nationals came within inches of pulling out a victory against the Dodgers on Saturday, but a quick throw to home by L.A. third baseman Casey Blake on a slow roller by Ian Desmond caught Ivan Rodriguez at the plate in the bottom of the 13th inning — and the Trolley’s went on to win a 4-3 13 inning squeaker at Nationals Park. The play-at-the-plate call brought boos from Nats fans, but after the game Rodriguez said he believed the umpire made the right decision: “I went in and saw the replay and I was out probably two or three inches. He made a good call,” Rodriguez said. The Nats had plenty of opportunities to win the game, but left 15 men on base against L.A. starter Clayton Kershaw and a host of Dodger relievers. “I thought we played real good baseball,” Nats’ manager Jim Riggleman said in the clubhouse after the game. “We got some timely hits. Pitching was good. It was a pitching and defense game. I wish we could have gotten the runs in. It just didn’t happen.”

The itchy-close contest included another stellar outing from Washington starter Craig Stammen and a 3 for 7 day from fleet-footed speedster Nyjer Morgan — whose controversial sixth inning decision to try for third on a ball hit over the head of left fielder Xavier Paul was the talk of the post game commentators. After the game, Morgan admitted he had made a base running mistake. “I was being aggressive, but not intelligent,” Morgan said. “But my thought was they were trying to [throw out] Stammen. I should have stopped about halfway, but I was locked in. I had tunnel vision there and didn’t understand the situation a little bit. I have to be smarter in that situation. It was an aggressive play. I was thinking they would throw out the pitcher instead of trying to get me at third. I should have known better not to make the last out at third base.”

Stammen Stymies Rockies, Willie Homers

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

If Monday is any indication, Craig Stammen has arrived. The 6-3 Ohio native pitched an eight inning, 5-2 gem against the Colorado Rockies at Nationals Park last night, registering his first win of the season. Stammen mixed a moving fastball with his curve and slider to hold the hard-hitting Heltons to two runs, scattering five hits — and getting four RBIs from Willie Harris. Stammen’s outing was in stark contrast to his last visit to the mound, when he pitched batting practice to the Philadelphia Phillies, lasting just 1.1 innings. The key to Stammen’s outing, according to pitching mentor Livan Hernandez, was his slider: “He threw the ball perfectly today,” Hernandez said. “The slider, the cutter were down. He struck out people. I like the way he pitched today. He’s a good guy. I think he has the best stuff of all the starting pitchers. His slider disappears. When he throws perfectly and down, the slider disappears. He has a good changeup and curveball. He throws a little harder. You have to take advantage. The location is more important.”

Willie Harris showed surprising power — although by now, Willie’s ability to go deep should not be in doubt. With two on in the second, Harris lifted an Aaron Cook fastball into deep right field, scoring three. The Harris home run would be all the Nats needed. “I thought it was hooking foul, but somehow it stayed fair,” Harris said. “I was so happy, that you don’t know how I felt running around those bases. It was fun.” Harris entered the game hitting .150. In the third inning, Harris hit a sacrifice fly to score a run — giving him four RBIs on the night.  “If you are hitting .150, you are going to sit on the bench,” Harris said after the game. “I was happy for myself and the team. Everybody wants to play. Unfortunately, if you don’t produce, you are not going to play. Hopefully, I can keep things going and we can play good baseball.”

The Nats latest victim was Rockies’ ace Aaron Cook, who lasted just three innings. Unlike Stammen, Cook’s sinker — celebrated as one of the best in the game — didn’t sink, ending the Rockies’ nine game winning streak at Nationals Park. Cook had control problems from the first pitch.”Cookie wasn’t very good tonight,” Colorado manager Jim Tracy said. “There’s no other way to describe it. He had way too many three-ball counts, and it kind of helped create some negative momentum.” Despite the win, some Nationals are still mired in an early-season slump: Adam Dunn got credit for a lost-in-the-twilight double, but he’s still struggling at the plate. Ivan Rodriguez, on the other hand, continued his hot hitting streak — going 2-4. He’s now hitting .450 on the year. The Nats will face Colorado’s Jorge De La Rosa tonight.

Facing The Rockies

Monday, April 19th, 2010

The Nats took two of three from the Brewers, and might have swept the series — but for the Nat’s starting pitching. Even so, trailing by ten after the first inning in their third game match-up, the Nats made a contest of it on Sunday, pressing the Brewers’ relief corps and sending Milwaukee reeling into Pittsburgh (which, considering the resurgence of the Ahoys, is not necessarily good news). The Nats might not fare so well against the Colorado Rockies, who send Aaron Cook to the mound tonight at Nationals Park to face off against Washington starter Craig Stammen.

The Rockers are one of the four elite teams of the National League — on the same level as the Phillies, McCoveys and Red Birds. There’s a reason for that: they’re just plumb full of pitching. The talent doesn’t stop with no-hitter hero Ubaldo Jimenez. Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel and Greg Smith round out a solid rotation, which can only get better. If Jeff Francis successfully completes a rehab of his left shoulder, the Rockies could have the best pitching staff in the game. Indeed, there was a time when first sacker and slugger Todd Helton defined the team, but no more. The face of the Colorado franchise is now a bevy of solid starters capable of shutting down any NL team. So, just think how good they’ll be if Jeff Francis returns.

Of course that’s a huge “if.” The Rockies have been hit hard by pitching injuries: in addition to Francis (who, for a time, might have been considered one of the best starters in the game), the Rockies are missing savvy closer Huston Street (the pay-off Oakland made for giving up Matt Holliday), who is on the 15 day DL with a tweeky right shoulder. The Rockies need Street; closer-designate Franklin Morales has blown back-to-back saves, the most recent a heart-wrenching 4-3 loss at Atlanta that followed a dramatic last-inning loss to the (gulp) Mets. If the Rockies don’t have Street (and Colorado bloggers — like Purple Row — have been speculating that he might be down for more than April), they’re in trouble. But given his return, and the overpowering front-line of Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook and the emotional, if effective, Jorge De La Rosa (whose last half of ’09 was stunning), the Rockies are the team-to-beat in the NL West. And that’s true despite the out-of-body fear that most teams face when they play Tim Lincecum’s Giants.